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Revamped Tel Aviv museum a globe-spanning journey through Jewish history

Open after $100 million renovation, the Museum of the Jewish People — ANU harnesses the vibrant breadth of Jewish cultures through artifacts, artwork and interactive displays

Jessica Steinberg covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center.

  • Visitors tour ANU, the Museum of the Jewish People in Tel Aviv, March 9, 2021. (AP/Sebastian Scheiner)
    Visitors tour ANU, the Museum of the Jewish People in Tel Aviv, March 9, 2021. (AP/Sebastian Scheiner)
  • A glance at the three floors of the new ANU Museum of the Jewish People, which opened March 10, 2021, following a ten-year reconfiguration (Courtesy Amir Brenner)
    A glance at the three floors of the new ANU Museum of the Jewish People, which opened March 10, 2021, following a ten-year reconfiguration (Courtesy Amir Brenner)
  • Jewish writers, a section in the The Mosaic, the first gallery of the newly refurbished ANU Museum of the Jewish People, which reopened in Tel Aviv on March 10, 2021 (Courtesy Shahar and Ziv Katz)
    Jewish writers, a section in the The Mosaic, the first gallery of the newly refurbished ANU Museum of the Jewish People, which reopened in Tel Aviv on March 10, 2021 (Courtesy Shahar and Ziv Katz)
  • Part of the exhibit about Jews in the film industry from The Mosaic Gallery at ANU Museum of the Jewish People, which reopened in Tel Aviv on March 10, 2021 (Courtesy Amir Brenner)
    Part of the exhibit about Jews in the film industry from The Mosaic Gallery at ANU Museum of the Jewish People, which reopened in Tel Aviv on March 10, 2021 (Courtesy Amir Brenner)
  • Musician Leonard Cohen's guitar from his final concert in Israel in 2009, on display at ANU Museum of the Jewish People, which opened March 10, 2021 (Courtesy Shahar and Ziv Katz)
    Musician Leonard Cohen's guitar from his final concert in Israel in 2009, on display at ANU Museum of the Jewish People, which opened March 10, 2021 (Courtesy Shahar and Ziv Katz)
  • Visitors tour the Museum of the Jewish People in Tel Aviv on March 9, 2021. (AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner)
    Visitors tour the Museum of the Jewish People in Tel Aviv on March 9, 2021. (AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner)
  • Visitors tour the Museum of the Jewish People in Tel Aviv on March 9, 2021. (AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner)
    Visitors tour the Museum of the Jewish People in Tel Aviv on March 9, 2021. (AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner)
  • Visitors tour the Jewish museum in Tel Aviv on March 9, 2021. (AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner)
    Visitors tour the Jewish museum in Tel Aviv on March 9, 2021. (AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner)

The guitar Leonard Cohen played at his final concert in Israel in 2009, a distinctive lace collar favored by Ruth Bader Ginsburg and a 15th century Book of Esther scroll from pre-Inquisition Spain share part of the vast, open space of the newly reopened ANU — Museum of the Jewish People, dedicated to showcasing the vibrant spectacle of the Jewish people throughout history and across the globe.

The museum, formerly known as the Diaspora Museum, or Beit Hatfutsot, opened Tuesday on the Tel Aviv University campus after a $100 million renovation, tripling its size to 72,000 square feet (6,690 feet).

The new museum’s three floors feature a heady mix of gripping historical artifacts, interactive digital displays and original works of art.

The name ANU, Hebrew for “we,” reflects the ambitious attempt to span the 4,000-plus year history of the Jewish people, said museum officials. The museum aims to be a home for all Jews, and hopes to host over 500,000 visitors a year.

Visitors tour the Museum of the Jewish People in Tel Aviv on March 9, 2021. (AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner)

“It’s the most comprehensive Jewish museum in the world,” said Dan Tadmor, the museum’s CEO. “It tells the whole story, and that’s why it took 10 years to do it.”

To tell that story, the museum utilizes various types of media, artifacts and interactive displays.

Visitors to the museum are greeted by a series of life-sized projections of Jewish families from around the globe, with audio descriptions in six languages of who they are and where they fit into the Jewish journey.

Life sized portraits of Jews and Jewish families around the world greets visitors at the first gallery in the redesigned ANU Museum of the Jewish People (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

The museum has to represent everyone, said chief curator Orit Shaham-Gover.

“We wanted people to find themselves here,” said Shaham-Gover. “We wanted them to see creation of all kinds, and to see that this life is also theirs.”

Another exhibit looks at Jewish achievements in the arts, from Yiddish fiction to Hollywood. Artifacts include Isaac Bashevis Singer’s typewriter, composer Irving Berlin’s sheet music and a model of ET, who is not Jewish but was created by Jewish director Steven Spielberg for his groundbreaking 1982 film about a boy and his extraterrestrial.

Visitors can also “cook” at a digital display of Jewish cuisine from celebrity chefs, making stuffed vegetables or shakshuka, navigate around famed works of art by Jewish artists, or grab a quote from an interactive display of books by famous Jewish writers.

Black and white etchings by Israeli illustrator Yirmi Pinkus of famous Jews are drawn in the spirit of Al Hirschfeld, the famed caricaturist whose works graced the Arts and Leisure section of the Sunday New York Times.

‘Cook’ your own classic Jewish food at an interactive display at the redesigned ANU Museum of the Jewish People, which reopened on March 10, 2021 (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

Before the renovation, the museum, which opened in 1978, was best known for its dioramas and models of synagogues around the world. Eleven of the replicas are still there, touched up and housed in their own gallery.

Alongside them are various other artifacts from around the world, like a jawza — a stringed instrument that was once played by the Al-Kuwaity brothers, 20th century Iraqi musicians.

Dan Tadmor, CEO of ANU Museum of the Jewish People, which reopened to the public on March 10, 2021 (Courtesy ANU)

An interactive exhibit allows visitors to listen to Sephardic chants and poems sung by Israeli musicians, including Etti Ankri, Berry Sakharov, Yonatan Razel, Meir Banai and Shai Tsabari. Films show the unsuccessful revolt of the Israelites against the Roman Empire 2,000 years ago and life in the period of the Talmud.

Every part of the museum is woven together with original art by current Israeli artists, bringing a modern touch to ancient scripts.

Israeli graffiti artist Pilpeled created his signature black-and-white graphics for a wall-size portrait of the Baal Shem Tov and the Vilna Gaon while singer Neta Elkayam is recorded singing lullabies from across the centuries.

A team of 50 academic advisers, curators and experts was involved in the recreation of the museum, to make sure that all genders, ethnicities and denominations were well represented, said Tadmor.

“We wanted to reach everyone, from Tashkent to San Francisco,” said Tadmor.

Israeli graffiti artist Nir Peled’s portrait of the Baal Shem Tov and Vilna Gaon at the redesigned ANU Museum of the Jewish People, which opened March 10, 2021 (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

While the museum avoids some of the thornier political issues, such as who is a Jew, it does tackle biblical Judaism, taking an overarching look at concepts in the Torah, the development of the Jewish calendar, and an array of original art commissioned from Israeli artists referring back to the Jewish calendar and life cycle. Artists include Arik Weiss, Ken Goldman and Hadassa Goldvicht.

Visitors can use a digital bracelet that allows them to tag favorite displays or experiences from the museum they’d like to further explore, including the literary quotations, recipes and family trees — and have them sent by email following their visit.

Unlike many other cultural spaces in Israel currently, museums do not limit entry solely to those who are vaccinated or have recovered from the coronavirus, though tickets must be bought in advance for specific time slots. Those who can’t make it in person can experience a virtual tour online.

Irina Nevzlin, chair of ANU Museum of the Jewish People (Courtesy Yanai Yechiel)

Close to a third of the $100 million renovation was financed by the Nadav Foundation of Russian-Israeli oil magnate Leonid Nevzlin. Another $52 million came from other US-based philanthropists and foundations, and $18 million from the Israeli government. Nevzlin’s daughter Irina, the wife of Israeli Health Minister Yuli Edelstein, serves as chair of the museum’s board of directors.

Nevzlin, who was raised in Moscow and didn’t know she was Jewish until she was 12, said the museum “tells the story for everyone.”

“Whether we like it or not, we all deal with identity issues,” said Nevzlin. “We wanted to tell the story of where we’re from, and to be proud of who we are.”

AP contributed to this report.

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